by Stephen Tall on May 22, 2014
It’s 10 years since The Orange Book was published. Edited by David Laws and Paul Marshall it was widely regarded as an attempt by economic liberals within the Lib Dems to wrest back control of the party from social liberals.
Both Laws and Marshall would argue their attempt at ‘reclaiming liberalism’ (the book’s sub-title) was more about re-balancing liberalism as practised by the Lib Dems — that the party had grown intellectually lazy, happiest with simply saying ‘tax more, spend more’ as the answer to every public policy problem without thinking through how that would make people freer or society fairer.
And indeed The Orange Book spanned a wide range of views within the party, with three of its nine contributors more identified, at least subsequently, with the social liberal (aka ‘left’) wing of the party: Steve Webb, Vince Cable and Chris Huhne. The latter is of course no longer an elected Lib Dem, but the former two are and have held two senior posts in government for the past four years.
Steve Webb has led on pensions within Iain Duncan Smith’s Work and Pensions department, while Vince Cable has been Business Secretary. It’s interesting to look at their records in government.
Steve has abolished compulsory purchase of pension annuities, famously saying, “if people do get a Lamborghini, and end up on the state pension, the state is much less concerned about that, and that is their choice.” He has also defended the ‘bedroom tax’, arguing that the average weekly loss of £15 could be met by those affected working an extra three hours at the minimum wage to pay the shortfall.
Meanwhile Vince has raised to £9k the maximum amount that universities can charge students in annual tuition fees and privatised the Royal Mail.
Defences can be made of all these policies. I agree with pensions reform in principle – though the legitimate concerns about the ‘moral hazard’ of pensioners blowing their savings, or of being mis-advised, should have been properly consulted on rather than breezily announced in the Budget. I agree with the aims of the ‘bedroom tax’, to try and ensure social housing supply matches social housing demand – but it patently doesn’t work in those areas where demand and supply cannot be matched.
I agree with increased tuition fees and it’s clear these are not deterring low-income students despite the scare-mongering – though the negative impact on part-time and mature students is worrying and needs reviewing. I agree with the privatisation of Royal Mail and tend to think it’s easier with hindsight to say the shares were under-priced – but the way some big private, sort-term investors have been able to cash-in quick gains has tarnished this success.
What intrigues me, though, about the positions of Steve Webb and Vince Cable is that these two ministers have advanced some of the most controversial Coalition policies of this Parliament — policies which, with the exception of pensions reform, large numbers of Lib Dem members are against. Yet the two most popular Lib Dem ministers among party members are… Steve Webb and Vince Cable.
It’s somewhat ironic that these two Orange Bookers, seen as the leading social liberals within the party, have advanced the most economically liberal policies pursued by the Lib Dems within Coalition. The triumph of The Orange Book hasn’t exactly come from the direction many expected.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.